Tom Sannicandro served 12 years in the Massachusetts Legislature, advocating on behalf of people with disabilities and co-leading the committee on higher education. For that job, he earned about $75,000 annually.
This year, Sannicandro got a big pay raise. Three months after he left Beacon Hill, his salary more than doubled when he took a new position at the University of Massachusetts Boston as director of a special institute where he earns $165,000.
Sannicandro is one of several politically connected people who have been hired at UMass Boston in recent years, while budget woes forced cutbacks in class offerings and even office supplies.
Amid an unprecedented financial crisis, the university has hired at least seven people with connections to state government and politics as administrators with salaries between $81,000 and $222,000 in the past year and a half, records show. The hires include the former head of the state Democratic Party, a former legislative aide, and a former state commissioner of environmental protection. Together, the seven people earn nearly $1 million.
A UMass campus spokesman said in a statement that hiring is based on merit, and that prior government service does not provide a special advantage or disqualify applicants. “UMass Boston is focused on the future and on taking all of the steps it needs to take to maximize its contribution to the city, the state, and beyond,” DeWayne Lehman said.
The hires underscore UMass’s reputation as a place where the politically connected of Beacon Hill can land a job with a single phone call. It’s an attractive place to work in part because the UMass system is part of the state retirement system, so state employees can continue to earn toward their pensions, which are based on their three highest years of pay and their number of years of service. And the campus’s location is for many more appealing than traveling to the other campuses in Lowell, Dartmouth, Worcester, or Amherst.
“UMass is nirvana for state employees,” said Greg Sullivan, a former state legislator and state inspector general who now works at the Pioneer Institute, a conservative think tank. “To get to UMass is like a life dream for state legislators.”
Hiring former state officials can also have significant benefits for the university. Many have skills, knowledge, and connections that can help public colleges, said Joseph Johnston, a senior consultant with the national higher education search firm AGB.
“There is nothing intrinsically wrong or problematic about it, yet there are times when it certainly does get controversial,” said Johnston, speaking generally, not specifically about UMass.
The Boston campus is expected to run a $10 million deficit this year, down from an original projection of around $30 million, according to UMass officials. Administrators instituted a hiring freeze in November but overall have hired at least 29 people since then. Sannicandro, 61, was hired after the freeze, but according to the university his salary is funded entirely by outside grants received by the institute he now runs.
To address its deficit, the campus has canceled classes, offered employee buyouts, and laid off some adjunct professors. It reduced the frequency of the student shuttle from the MBTA stop to campus and told departments to cut back on photocopying.
None of UMass Boston’s politically connected hires responded to requests for comment about their pay, their position, or how they obtained it. The university spokesman declined to make officials available for comment.
In addition to Sannicandro, the recent political hires include three who joined the government relations office, which lobbies on behalf of the school and is responsible for communications, marketing, and community relations, according to the office’s leader.
Matt Fenlon, the former director of the state Democratic Party, is now the director of economic development and corporate outreach. Benny Meshoulam, a policy adviser for Attorney General Maura Healey, is now the university’s director of government relations. They each earn $96,663, about a third more than their previous salaries. Ashley Brown, a former legislative aide, is now the special assistant to the vice chancellor of government relations, also earning $96,663, or nearly twice her former salary.
David Cash, the former state commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection, is the new dean of the McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies, a post that pays $221,555.
The school also hired Cynthia K. Orellana, a former Patrick administration official, as director of the Office of Community Partnerships at $101,748. Kevin McCluskey, the former public affairs director for the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority who also worked for Harvard University as community development director, is the associate director of athletics for external development and marketing, earning $81,335.
The government relations office is run by Edward M. Lambert Jr., the vice chancellor for government relations and public affairs, who was hired in 2013 and makes $190,000 according to online state data. Lambert served seven years in the House, 12 as mayor of Fall River, and 2½ as commissioner of the Department of Conservation and Recreation under governor Deval Patrick.
Lambert said the hires are a cost-saving measure. The department recently permanently eliminated two higher-paying positions that together cost $340,000, he said. They have also left other positions vacant over the last 18 months, he said.
In his new post, Sannicandro will lead the Institute for Community Inclusion, a center that promotes the assimilation of people with disabilities into society, according to its website.
According to the university spokesman, the university created a special committee to review vacancies and approve any exceptions to the hiring freeze. Sannicandro’s salary is funded entirely by two grants, from federal and other state governments, to the institute, the spokesman said. The institute is the largest grant recipient at the university, he said.
Other politically connected people have been hired at UMass Boston in the past. David Magnani, a former state senator from Framingham, was hired in 2012. He is now assistant vice chancellor for corporate and foundation relations, earning $124,203, according to the university. Philip Carver, hired in 2008, is a former chief of staff at the state Executive Office of Transportation, according to his LinkedIn page. He is now director of community relations at UMass Boston, earning $101,107.
Sullivan, at the Pioneer Institute, said such political hiring is unhealthy on two levels. It fosters a perception that UMass needs political connections to get preferential treatment from the Legislature during budget season, and also that friendly politicians can easily find work at the school.
“It’s kind of like UMass becomes a wholly owned subsidiary of Beacon Hill. They can make a phone call and put somebody at UMass,” he said.
A situation with similar overtones is unfolding at Salem State University, where former longtime state representative John Keenan was recently named president. That hire sparked debate over whether the state should do more to discourage favoritism and encourage diversity.
Former politicians and the politically connected have also been known to land at other UMass campuses, including the medical school in Worcester. And of course, the system’s president, Martin T. Meehan, served 14 years in the US House of Representatives.
Earlier this month the state Board of Higher Education vowed to ensure a better search process for public colleges in the future. Chris Gabrieli, chairman of the state board of higher education, said the situation at Salem State, and the hires at UMass, demonstrate a flaw in the way the state funds public colleges and universities, with spending levels fiercely debated each year in the Legislature.
The perception that there is a “secret Beacon Hill handshake” is bad, Gabrieli said. One solution is to fund higher education with a fixed formula like secondary schools, he said, instead of leaving it open to political debate every year.
“Then nobody thinks it’s about relationships,” he said.